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Questions about going to school for philosophy have already been asked, but I

Questions about going to school for philosophy have already been asked, but I couldn't help but ask another; I am strongly considering a search for a graduate-level philosophy school, and the panel is partially made of individuals working within grad. philosophy programs, and certainly those who graduated from such programs. I would like to know, from the panel member(s) that may respond: What exactly brought you to the point that you could say you were a constructive contributor to the philosophy field? What level of work did you have to demonstrate to enter the graduate program which you entered, and what quality of work was your output there? I'm asking you to evaluate these things to better understand what exactly needs to be sown to reap the feeling that you earned your degrees and the university position at which you teach. I think it would help to build a scale to use to quantify my own goal of professorship, or otherwise significant contributions to the field, one day.

I'll be interested in seeing what other answers you get to this question. Phil grad programs vary widely in reputation, as well as in both entrance and graduation requirements. There's also variation in the quality of work that gets published, as well as the amount and venue of publication that will count, in the eyes of colleagues and potential employers, as a "significant contribution to the field." I consider myself a constructive contributor every time I answer a question on this site or help a previously befuddled undergrad distinguish between a sound argument and a fallacious one...though the American Philosophical Association would probably be inclined to disagree.

For insight into programs and their respective requirements, see University of Texas professor Brian Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet Report, especially the links on Graduate Study. For insight into the process of getting through graduate school and into a philosophy professorship, see A Philosophy Job Market Blog, with particular attention to the comments.

If you and I were having this conversation one-to-one over a cup of coffee, I'd say: I felt I earned my degree when I got it, twelve years after starting graduate study. As for my university position, I gladly acknowledge it was more a matter of luck than earning, though I do feel I earn it with every student paper I grade. (You can find insight into these answers on my own blog, The Philosopher-Mom, although it will require some searching and a sense of humor.)

In the end, I'd say, don't do it unless you love philosophy. Period.

I am trying to decide what profession to go into. What I mind is that I should

I am trying to decide what profession to go into. What I mind is that I should act in a way which is best for reducing the unbearable suffering of some people. I want become a doctor. I would make a good doctor. But then an argument occurs to me: If I don't become a doctor, someone else, probably equally good, will do the job I would have done. Therefore, it doesn't matter what I do. Perhaps I should become a banker, and then I can give more to charity. Is there something wrong with the argument?

Nearly all the unbearable suffering in this world occurs among the poorer half of humankind which, collectively, accounts for about 2.4 percent of global consumption and 1.1 percent of global wealth. Are doctors lining up to relieve this suffering? Actually, the opposite is the case. Many physicians trained at great expense in poor countries are lured away to rich countries after their training is completed, sometimes by very active recruitment efforts. So, if you became a doctor to relieve this unbearable suffering, you would be one of a tiny number of doctors, each of whom is -- as best as he or she can --replacing hundreds of doctors migrating in the opposite direction. Check out Partners in Health (PIH) for some more information.

If you do not become a doctor, the person taking your place in medical school is very likely to choose what indeed is a replacable job: caring for affluent patients in an affluent country. How many GP's in this country don't even open their practice to Medicaid and Medicare patients?

As for bankers, most money they give to charity goes to affluent domestic religious communities, universities, opera houses, museums, and the like. So there, too, you can make a contribution to relieving unbearable suffering that, but for you, would not be made.

Is it significant that great modern philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz,

Is it significant that great modern philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Wittgenstein were all unmarried? Is there an incompatibilty between major philosophical standing and the state of matrimony? Once a guy has savored the consolations of philosophy, does the idea of a wife leave him cold?

When Kant was asked why he never married, he said that when he had the inclination, he lacked the means, and when he acquired the means, he no longer had the inclination.

Is it emotionally difficult to be a professional philosopher? Sometimes

Is it emotionally difficult to be a professional philosopher? Sometimes philosophical questions and subject matter seem so disturbing and intense, that it must surely be taxing psychologically. Does non-philosophical subject matter become pale and boring in comparison? Are professional philosophers socially isolated because of boredom with the non-philosophical, concomitant with the disturbing nature of the philosophical (so that it may not be acceptable in non-philosophical company)? Thanks.

I'd like to add a comment to Allen Stairs' excellent answer: it is worth distinguishing between philosophers who write about 'angst', and the experience of angst. In existentialism, for example, the experience of anxiety is often considered to be philosophically interesting (the fact that anxiety is experienced shows something, or even that anxiety itself is a form of showing) but not yet philosophy. Moreover, the philosopher (like everyone else) must spend most of the time in a state of everydayness, false consciousness or whatever, enjoying a Gauloise and an espresso in a cafe in the sun -- or if gloomy, for perfectly ordinary reasons.

Dear Philosophers,

Dear Philosophers, I am a 34-year old undergraduate (junior level, at a very good liberal arts college), majoring in philosophy and art history. I fully understand that I am already 5-10 years behind those with whom I would potentially compete for positions in higher education. My question is the following: Do you believe I have the same capacity (given the rigorous nature of the discipline) and chance (given that I complete doctoral studies) to make a meaningful contribution to my chosen specialized field (aesthetics)? I know that there are personal variables that make success more or less likely.

There are of course the usual things anyone ought to consider before applying to graduate school in philosophy -- you need to love philosophy and you need to understand that good jobs (at research universities or top liberal arts programs) are scarce and require that you go to a very strong graduate program and do first-rate work. These and other qualifications and advice are discussed at Brian Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet Report ( But I don't think that being a somewhat older student, of the sort you describe, by itself puts you at any significant disadvantage in getting into a good graduate program or getting a good job. I don't have statistics on thes issues, but I have certainly encountered very talented applicants to graduate school or for tenure-track jobs that took some time out somewhere between high school and graduate school. Someone who took time off between college and graduate school might be at a disadvantage in applying to graduate school, because programs would worry about whether they were prepared for graduate school, but that is not the situation you describe. Also, I can imagine that prospective graduate students in their 30s might be under special pressures in graduate school if they have or were planning to have a family. These pressures confront some in graduate school anyway and confront many others early in their careers, but, all else being equal, they are likely to arise earlier for students that start later. You may not have such plans, and in any case many graduate students and junior faculty members contend with such pressures successfully. I can't think of other issues to discuss. My sense is that the important issues for you are the general ones about your philosophical interests, ambitions, and talents and that age, by itself, should not significantly affect your decision. By all means, discuss this with your advisors in the philosophy department at your undergraduate institution.

I've heard it said that philosophers as a demographic are overwhelmingly single

I've heard it said that philosophers as a demographic are overwhelmingly single (in the unmarried sense). I don't know if this is true, but if it is, could it be because love and reason conflict? For example, if your lover has a habit of losing valuable items, locking him/herself out of the house, etc., practical reason forces you to confront them with suggestions implying "you ought to be better - I'm telling you how you should be better", a suggestion which is often infuriating to someone who's supposed to be in an equal relationship with you. Love, on the other hand, urges you to look with forgiveness and even humor on your significant other's faults. Given these consequences, if you're agreed that love and reason pull us in these separate directions, shouldn't humanity focus on love and forgo reason?

I think it's true that philosophers tend to be single more often than non-philosophers, but I'm not sure I would attribute that to their being bound by the dictates of practical reason to regularly and overtly draw the attention of their partners to their moral or prudential failings. It may rather be, perhaps, that philosophers are on the average more argumentative, more idiosyncratic, more perfectionist than other folk, and more needful of personal time and private space for reflection and writing. But going back to reason, I think there's no good argument that a commitment to rationality, which we'll assume no respectable philosopher will shirk, requires one to act as a monitor and corrector of those around one, especially those one loves, since as you suggest, love is more important than being right or improving others. That isn't to say that you should never try to modify the behavior of others for the better by your own, presumably fallible, lights, and in ways that will also benefit them, but that that goal has to be weighed against other goods, such as preserving harmony, respect, and good will between partners. Put otherwise, wisdom, which is perhaps the highest form of rationality, enjoins one not to issue every judgment of prudential irrationality regarding a partner's behavior, but to pick and choose which to press, when to press, and how to press, in the interests of the love that is even more important to "get right".

I recently read an article where a doctor remarked that he had considered

I recently read an article where a doctor remarked that he had considered becoming a philosopher but eventually realized that he "didn't have the knack for asking the right sort of philosophical questions." Also, philosophy graduate school applications I read often say that they want the writing sample to demonstrate an ability to detect fruitful areas of philosophical inquiry. Is the ability to pick up on the "right" philosophical questions a skill that can be honed?

Yes it is. But now I suppose you expect me to say how. You are asking a lot. Here are a few tips.

(1) Look for a question that is small but not trivial. It’s often a good idea to look for a question that is about a specific argument for a big claim, rather than a question directly about the big claim itself. This gives you focus and specificity. It also gives you automatic structure, since it gives you the distinction between the issue of whether the premises are acceptable and the issue of whether the conclusion follows from the premises.

(2) Look for a question that is relatively clear (though you may still need to spend a lot of effort making it clearer).

(3) Look for a question that immediately suggests different readings that you can distinguish. More generally, look for a question that will enable you to make useful distinctions.

(4) Look for a new question that looks like an old question that already has an excellent philosophical answer that you understand well. Then see whether you can develop an analogous answer to the new question. As in most areas of life, you hone your skill in philosophy by imitation. (This is a point that Thomas Kuhn emphasised about science.) Fill your head with lots of examples of good question-answer pairs that other philosophers have produced, then use these old questions as models for selecting new questions. This way you get models for new answers at the same time. This is important, since one of the main things that makes for a good philosophical question is that it has a good answer that you can give.

In reading various relatively contemporary secondary literature on several

In reading various relatively contemporary secondary literature on several different philosophers, I've noticed that many of them seem to intimate (or sometimes outright state) that the philosopher in question has been badly misunderstood, at least from a time shortly after their death, until relatively recently. Has the standards of scholarship really drastically improved in the last 20 or so years, or is this sort of claim perennial to the secondary literature on philosophy?

I think the standards of scholarship have improved over the last twenty years (or maybe the last forty or so -- it's been a gradual development). At least in the better work that is being done in the history of philosophy nowadays, there is a far higher level of rigour than one used to find. This has probably been a consequence of the expansion in the professional field during that period. With so many more academics working on these things than there used to be, all in (friendly) competition with one another, the somewhat woolly and slapdash approach that one can find in older works on the history of philosophy will nowadays lose out in the battle for publication. And the field has definitely benefitted as a result of this new rigour.

But that's not necessarily to say that we understand historical philosophers better than they used to be understood. In the academic profession, there's a lot of pressure to come up with some new insight or original interpretation, to validate the publication of yet another work on a philosopher who's already had thousands of other books and articles written about them. And then, when someone does come up with a new idea, it's just human nature for them to think it's right, and to wish to promote it as strongly as they can, so they might dress it up in such a way as to suggest that all of the other interpretations are wrong. That certainly is a perennial feature of the secondary literature. And, if the author can provide lots of textual evidence for this novel interpretation, then it will certainly be worthy of serious consideration. But, if they go to the extreme of suggesting that the historical figure in question was universally misunderstood in his or her own time, and that it's only now that we're finally cottoning on to what they were really going on about, I think one does have to treat that kind of suggestion with a certain degree of caution.

Here and there, one probably can find a handful of historical philosophers who were misunderstood by their contemporaries. I think George Berkeley was probably an example: comparing what he wrote with what was written about him in his own time, there is such a stark contrast that it's hard not to suspect that his contemporaries simply didn't get it. But such cases are few and far between. More generally, one needs to be on one's guard about making claims like these. A philosopher's work can only be properly understood in the way that philosopher actually intended it when one approaches it via the conceptual scheme and the cluster of presuppositions, methodological principles, motivations and goals that were informing the work (not to mention having a proper grip on the connotations of the terms the author was using, whether in an archaic version of English or, even worse, an obsolete form of a language that is already foreign anyway). What we need to do, if we want to do serious work in the history of philosophy, is to get a grip on the wider context of the period: and this is not impossible, but it does require quite a bit of effort. By contrast, those who were discussing these figures in, or even merely nearer to, their own time were already, to a greater or lesser degree, embedded within that very context. It was second nature to them, whereas we are forever playing catch-up. So, on the whole, if I want to know about, say, the philosophy of Descartes, although I would be inclined to place more trust in a recent analysis than one from a hundred years ago (because, as I say, the standards of scholarship have improved), I suspect that decent seventeenth century authors (the Objectors to the Meditations, for instance) would be likely to have understood it better still. The trouble is, of course, that understanding those seventeenth century commentators is likely to throw up all of the same problems as understanding Descartes himself. But, then, no one ever said these things were easy!

From reading these pages it strikes me that almost all philosophers in the

From reading these pages it strikes me that almost all philosophers in the Amherst group are not religious (Professor Heck is a notable exception). Is this true of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, generally? I suspect it is, and, if so, what are the ramifications? Do the religious types know they are right - surely a presupposition of their faiths - and do they consider it their role in philosophy to convert doubters? The 'it-works-for-me' anecdotal/testimonial religious argument is surely as worthless in philosophy as it is in, say, pseudosciences like homeopathy, however. Shrugging one's shoulders because one has absolute certainty in one's religion surely doesn't pass muster if one is a professional philosopher whose job it is to explain one's philosophical worldview to one's students? Is the only recourse to be a proponent of Intelligent Design theory, which doesn't work? I can't see any way round this. Your thoughts are very welcome and thanks in advance.

I don't know that philosophers as a group have any particular attitude to religion, just different attitudes. Believers may feel that they can justify their religious beliefs philosophically, and set out to do so. I doubt whether they try to convert students, though, and if they do it does not look like it has been very successful, but then students are pretty well innoculated against the things that their teachers tell them in any case. Many philosophers who are religious do not see their religious views as having anything to do with their philosophical views, since the former are based on faith and as such an entirely different ball game from their philosophical work.

I don't agree that it is the job of philosophers to explain their philosophical worldview to students, if part of that worldview includes religion. One can neatly consign religion to a non-philosophical area of one's life and leave it entirely alone. After all, in many people's lives a very important allegiance is to a particular football team, and it is in mine, but it would be difficult to argue philosophically that everyone should support the team I happen to support.

Do the panel members believe that a student should be "talented" or in some way

Do the panel members believe that a student should be "talented" or in some way unique in order to seriously consider a career in philosophy? Philosophy graduate programs seem insanely exclusive, nevermind the less-than-scintillating job prospects which await after graduation; professional schools are difficult in their own way too, of course, and yet sometimes I get the impression that, whereas a "mediocre" doctor or lawyer will almost certainly find work, a "mediocre" philosopher will almost certainly be homeless. Would you ever counsel an undergraduate NOT to pursue her interest in philosophy, despite an ardent passion for the stuff?

Graduate study is not the only way to nurture an ardent passion in philosophy, and so passionate undergraduates should consider a doctorate only if they understand the job market and can live with all that it (and the prior extended period of study) entails economically and personally.

Other panelists can comment on the rationality of the admissions processes at their own Universities, but it strikes me that there may well be an oversupply of doctorates and so admissions may not be exclusive enough. (I worry, in particular, that there are too many total doctorate programs because some Universities wish to "upgrade" to doctoral status for reasons that have nothing to do with the intellectual welfare or career prospects of their prospective graduate students.)

All that said, doctorates who can't find satisfactory academic employment need not end up homeless because they have skills that are prized within business, law, and other professional fields.